MLAs move to independent makes Sinn Fein Assembly’s largest party
It’s not the way Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will have wanted to start his first full day as DUP leader.
During Edwin Poots’ brief time in charge, several representatives quit the party, but the departures did not go beyond council level.
As his successor was addressing the media outside the La Mon Hotel and pledging to unite the party late last night, his North Down MLA was sending in his resignation letter.
Alex Easton is the last person you’d imagine would cause controversy.
He isn’t one of the DUP’s louder personalities at Stormont. A softly spoken, mild-mannered MLA, he passes below the radar most of the time. He is best known for his ferocious constituency work.
But his resignation statement given to the Belfast Telegraph, showed that still waters can run deep. Sir Jeffrey will today have to deal with the fall-out of Easton’s departure even though the North Down representative’s disillusionment isn’t linked to his leadership.
The Bangor man’s decision to sit as an independent unionist now makes Sinn Fein the largest party in the Assembly with its 27 to the DUP’s 26 – if you discount Jim Wells, which the DUP does.
Easton certainly didn’t mince his words about his former party. “I am at the end of my tether with u-turns and reaction politics,” he said.
He saw no “respect, discipline or decency” in the DUP in recent times. Not publicly identified with either the Donaldson or Poots camps, he blamed elements of both for damaging the party as they knifed each other in the back and caused “hurt on a daily basis”.
The North Down MLA has significantly built the DUP vote in the constituency. He topped the poll in the March 2017 Assembly election and reduced the 9,000 majority of then sitting independent MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, to just 1,200 in the Westminster poll three months later.
Although the bookies favourite to take the seat in 2019, he came up short against Alliance’s Dr Stephen Farry.
Sir Jeffrey will have hoped that departures from the DUP had ended with him taking up the reins of power. He needs to stop the rot and change the narrative that the party is on an irreversible downward trajectory.
His biggest challenge in recent days has been making peace with his former leadership rival. Poots’ unopposed election as DUP vice-chairman last night was significant. He is now a party grandee and is surely on course to succeed Lord Morrow when he steps down as chairman.
Sir Jeffrey was keeping his pledge to build bridges in the bruised party. But as he spoke of that “coming together, healing, uniting” to the media, he won’t have expected a fresh crisis.
The DUP has already lost five councillors in a month. Newry, Mourne and Down Council members Glyn Hanna and Kathryn Owen, and Derry and Strabane councillor Ryan McCready – all Donaldson supporters – quit, although the new leader must stand an excellent chance of bringing them back into the ranks.
Portadown councillor Darryn Causby quit after Poots was ousted, saying the former DUP leader had never received the support he deserved, and questioning devolution.
Limavady councillor James McCorkell resigned two days ago, claiming the party had “lost its soul” and mandatory power-sharing had “failed unionism”.
Sir Jeffrey now needs Easton’s resignation to be the last. The North Down MLA clearly believes his own brand is more powerful electorally than the DUP’s. The new party leader won’t want other representatives making the same calculation.
Easton feels under-valued and poorly treated by his former party. He said he had given over two decades of his life to the DUP “sometimes to the detriment” of his well-being and “few have cared how I felt”.
Last year, he told this reporter of his daily battle with mental health issues since he suffered physical and emotional abuse as a child.
He said while he loved his life in politics, he found the “nasty, aggressive side of it” very challenging. He previously worked in a carpet sample-making factory and as a hospital clerical officer.
“I entered politics by accident because I love helping people on the ground with day-to-day issues. My constituency work – away from the public domain – is what I excel at,” he said.
The North Down MLA is set to be tested in 10 months when he goes head-to-head with his old party in the Assembly election.
A seasoned and instinctively calm politician, Sir Jeffrey will certainly not be thrown of course by Easton’s decision. But it’s a reminder that resignations and setbacks are now par for the course for DUP leaders.
As one Twitter wag quipped: “Jeffrey had a good run there for a few hours.”